Luke Walton runs the Lakers' training camp practice on Sept. 26, 2018.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Walton on Season's Added Pressure: 'Here to do my Job'

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Luke Walton was a rookie on the Kobe-Shaq-Malone-Payton Lakers. He was a part of two L.A. championship squads. He was an assistant and interim head coach on a Golden State unit that finished with the best regular-season record in NBA history.

And now, he is head coach of the LeBron James-led Lakers, and manager of all the expectations that come with that title.

Peppered by questions about a recent meeting with President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson regarding the Lakers’ 3-5 start, the coach reiterated to his team that such media attention is nothing unexpected.

“My message to the players was: This is what we talked about,” Walton said at Friday’s practice. “We know this is going to happen. Every time we go on a losing streak, there’s going to be stories out there and distractions out there.”

Walton was hired in April 2016 — 10 months before Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka were chosen to lead the front office by Owner and President Jeanie Buss.

Walton said he has a “great relationship with management,” and downplayed the idea that his meeting with Johnson indicated any sort of panic.

“Magic, myself, Rob and Jeanie are in constant communication,” Walton said. “So this is no ‘all of a sudden there’s an emergency’ meeting. This is something that we do all the time. What we discuss in our meetings is between us. I’ve been saying [and] we’ve been saying since the beginning: We’re going to be patient. We know where we’re going, we know how to get there.”

Walton has gone 64-108 in two-plus years as the Lakers’ head coach. His first couple seasons featured rookie-filled rosters and less pressure than now, with the world’s greatest player, LeBron, on the team.

While the Lakers are currently two games under .500, they have been outscored by just a single point by their opponents this season.

They also had to deal with Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo combining for seven games of suspension, plus a brutal schedule that included five playoff teams in their first eight contests (before a Portland-Toronto back-to-back this weekend).

“We’ve had a couple set-backs with some suspensions,” Walton said. “But we’ve played some good teams and had a chance to win a lot of those games. Unfortunately we haven’t, but that’s the NBA. We plan on winning those in the future.”

The Lakers’ strengths have been in their scoring and pace, as they rank seventh in the NBA in offensive rating (112.3) and first in fast-break points (24.6). However, they are just 23rd in defensive rating (112.4).

With the news presented by the ESPN report, more attention has been cast upon Walton’s rotation, which has been far from established.

Through eight games, the Lakers have used 104 different lineups, according to NBA data.

“When you have certain rosters it’s black and white: These guys are starting, these guys are finishing, and it’s the other guys’ job to play the minutes in between,” Walton said. “That’s not how our team is. That’s not where we’re at as a group.”

Indeed, the Lakers are still very much in their infancy as a team.

Of the 13 players who have hit the floor this year, five are incoming veterans and seven have fewer than three years of NBA experience.

League-wide, six teams have a lineup that has already played 100-plus minutes. The Lakers’ most frequently used group — Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, James, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee — has logged only 50 minutes together.

But the Lakers do appear to be inching closer to finding continuity, as that lineup has outscored its opponents by seven points, while the next-most-used combination — Ball, Brandon Ingram, James, Kuzma and McGee — is plus-13 in 31 minutes as the current starting five.

“We would like to get a couple lineups that are comfortable and know they’re going in together,” Walton said. “But that hasn’t been our reality so far this year. Shorter training camp, less preseason games, new group of guys. We don’t have that knowledge yet of what the groups are really doing well together and who plays well. That’s all stuff that’s still being figured out.”

At the beginning of training camp, Johnson said that he and Pelinka told Walton, “‘Don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start. We have seen that with LeBron going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland.’”

Indeed, James’ first Heat team started 9-8 in 2010, and his Cavaliers squad opened 5-7 in 2014. Walton, Johnson and James have all preached patience in the opening months of the season, and the coach is concerned more with doing his job than its security.

“I feel like I’m coming down here to do my job and coach,” Walton said. “I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere.”

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